Motorcycle communicators have come a long way since the early units of a decade ago, with the 50 series the pinnacle of Sena’s maturing capable and versatile units.
They do a lot more than communicate between riders these days though: integration with your smartphone or GPS unit is extensive, they can connect to bikes with Bluetooth, CarPlay or Android Auto and now offer mesh intercom that provides greater range and clarity than in the past.
Sena gave the pair to Australian Road Rider for review with the warning: “There’s a learning curve.” I’ve tried communications units in the past and been generally unimpressed. Complicated to set up, terrible battery life, awful range and poor sound quality have all been characteristics… and all have been addressed in the current models.
The simple fact is, the technology has matured. If you haven’t used a communicator in a few years because of a poor experience, these new ones might prove to be what you were looking for. Of course, with the march of technology and the adoption of smartphones, the two Sena units are designed from the outset to connect via Bluetooth with your phone, but also with your bike if you have a modern Bluetooth-equipped machine. We had no trouble connecting the Sena units to BMW and Honda motorcycles and various iPhones (nobody in our little troop was using an Android, but that should work just fine too).
CarPlay, Apple’s integration system, works really, really well with a Sena unit. On the Honda NT1100 there’s a big glove-friendly touchscreen and you can access items on the move via the left switchblock.
Music, navigation, calls… and text messages read out to you are all part of the package. It’s not particularly widespread yet, but this kind of tech is coming to a bike parked in your garage, maybe sooner than you think, but you’ll need a Sena or something similar, because without a headset some of these systems won’t even launch.
Mounting the units onto helmets was sometimes an interesting challenge. I have numerous helmets for various jobs so wanted to try the units on multiple lids, but the units are supplied with multiple microphones to suit different types of helmets. On a standard full-face (Kabuto RT-33), the clamp mount of the 50C was fine. I slipped the backing plate between the helmet liner and the shell and the communicator unit’s exterior plate on the outside and bolted it together with the supplied Allen key.
The linings need to be popped off to run the speakers around, but that was easy if you’re familiar with removing your helmet lining (and if you’re not, yuck! — go remove them now and give them a wash. These words will still be here when you’re done).
The wired mic mounted easily in front of my mouth (be careful not to block any vents).
For modular helmets Sena provide a wired boom mic. It mounts behind the lining and provides a boom mic to sit in front of your mouth with a thin cable running back to the mount. Initially I made the mistake of trying to use the open-face helmet static boom mount (only one the 50S), but this gets in the way of the chin piece and (in my case) the lever to operate the internal tinted visor of my AGV Sportmodular helmet.
Sena understands helmets are different, so it supplies a stick-on plate in addition to the bolt-on version, boom and wired mics and lots of sticky Velcro pads to mount it all. You can also buy additional plates, microphones and speakers, so you’re not limited to one helmet.
The most basic system is Bluetooth intercom between a pair of units, perfect for rider to pillion or if two riders are travelling close together. I tried this with my wife, her on her Vespa and me leading the way and it worked fine… until the 50C started telling me the mesh networking wasn’t working. It wasn’t switched on on the 50S, so the unit switched over to Bluetooth and worked fine. Up to four units can connect this way, and it’s easy to pair them via the Sena app on your smartphone, and you can have a conversation with one or all of the people in the group — so if your pillion wants to discuss which parts of their body need a massage, they don’t have to tell your mates…
So the Bluetooth intercom system has its place, but the mesh intercom offers a lot more range, clarity and group connections. One of the biggest drawbacks of older systems was getting all the units to talk to each other, which often took painstaking set-up. Mesh intercom circumvents this by allowing any Sena mesh-enabled units to join in to the chat simply by being on the correct channel, but you can also create private chats with the Group Mesh functionality. Up to 24 riders can be in a Group Mesh.
Talking to other people is great, but it’s not the only reason to buy a Sena communicator. These days I like to listen to music or podcast while I ride, something easy to do via a Sena unit. With the Sena app on your phone it’s easy to configure the Bluetooth connection, while the provided cable does charging and firmware updates via your home Wi-Fi network. Once paired, you can play whatever audio you like from your phone into the Sena unit and its Harmon-Kardon speakers.
The speakers sound great — so much clearer and louder than the units from the Bad Old Days. However, depending on your bike, speed and wind direction, ambient noise can make the volume of the ride unbearably loud due to wind noise. If you find this a problem, the 50S has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (an optional adaptor is required for the 50C) so you can run in-ear headphones, which can potentially block out wind noise without blocking the music, calls or other audio. Unfortunately, if the headset has a microphone, the system defaults to that and the Sena mic will be invariably much better, because it’s designed for bike use and is positioned right in front of your mouth.
If you mount your phone on your handlebars, the Sena Motorcycle and Camera apps can control the device, but there are many things you can do even if your phone is in a jacket pocket – and voice activation through Siri or Google Assistant as well as Sena’s own VOX voice activation is also available.
The 50C model has a built-in 4K video camera that can also capture 12mp stills. For video, if you reduce the resolution to 1080p (high res) it offers image stabilisation and a frame rate of 60fps, great for slow-motion. It will also record your voice and whatever audio is playing at the time you start the video.
The mounting of the 50C unit is different to the 50S because of the camera — the Jog Wheel mount allows vertical alignment while there’s horizontal alignment built into the lens.
For capturing small snippets of your ride from a great point of view, the camera on the 50S is great and much nicer to have mounted to a helmet than a GoPro — but the quality of the footage and stability can’t match the dedicated camera.
For use as supplementary footage and to record your thoughts along the way, it’s awesome. Battery life will suffer if you record too much, but it’s easy to power the 50C with a powerbank from a jacket pocket for all-day shooting.
There are numerous modes built in to the camera to make capturing the action easy.
At $899, you’d want to be really sure you’re going to get good use of the camera to buy the Sena 50C — the 50S is just $535, a saving of $364. The 50S isn’t as fussy to mount, won’t chew through its battery as fast and has a 3.5mm headphone jack standard… and if you’re getting a pair of units it’s even cheaper at $959 for a pair (the 50C isn’t sold in pairs).
For those who know they need the camera, the 50C is a no-brainer, but for most people I think the 50S will do everything they need relating to connection with their phone, their bike and their friends.